by Samuel Edward Konklin III
From Volume 3 Number 20 - July 1986
In 1964, an article appearing in The New York Times newspaper described Raymond Cyrus (R.C.) Hoiles as "slight of build, hawk-nosed toothy, bespectacled, with a fringe of still dark hair around his other-wise bald head." It also publicly identified Hoiles as a voluntaryist. With regards to the upcoming national elections (Goldwater was running for President), the same article reported that Hoiles was not inclined to look towards the ballot box for the quick adoption of his libertarian ideas. In fact, it quoted R.C. as stating, "It doesn't make much difference who is President. What is important is the attitude of the American people."
Having done every step of production in the publishing industry, both for
myself and others, I have one irrefutable empirical conclusion about the economic
effect of copyrights on prices and wages: nada. Zero. Nihil. So negligible you'd
need a geiger counter to measure it.
Before I move on to exactly what copyrights do have an impact on, one may be
interested as to why the praxeological negligibility of this tariff. The answer
is found in the peculiar nature of publishing. There are big publishers and small
publishers and very, very few in between. For the Big Boys, royalties are a fraction
of one percent of multi-million press runs. They lose more money from bureaucratic
interstices and round-off error. The small publishers are largely counter-economic
and usually survive on donated material or break-in writing; let the new writers
worry about copyrighting and reselling.
Furthermore, there are a very few cases of legal action in the magazine world
because of this disparity. The little 'zines have no hope beating a rip-off and
shrug it off after a perfunctory threat; the Biggies rattle their corporate-lawyer
sabres and nearly anyone above ground quietly bows.
Book publishing is a small part of total publishing and there are some middle-range
publishers who do worry about the total cost picture in marginal publishing cases.
But now there are two kinds of writers: Big Names and everyone else. Everyone
else is seldom reprinted; copyrights have nothing to do with first printings
(economically). Big Names rake it in - but they also make a lot from ever-higher
bids for their next contract. And the lowered risk of not selling out a reprint
of a Big Name who has already sold out a print run more than compensates paying
the writer the extra fee.
So Big Names writers would loose something substantial if the copyright privilege
(emphasis added) ceased enforcement. But Big Name writers are an even smaller
percentage of writers than Big Name Actors are of actors. If they all vanished
tomorrow, no one would notice (except their friends, one hopes). Still, one may
reasonably wonder if the star system's incentive can be done away without the
whole pyramid collapsing. If any economic argument remains for copyrights, it's
Crap. As Don Marquis put in the words of Archy the Cockroach, "Creative
expression is the need of my soul." And Archy banged his head on typewriter
key after typewriter key all night long to turn out his columns - which Marquis
cashed in. Writing as a medium of expression will continue as long as someone
has a burning need to express. And if all they have to express is a need for
second payments and associated residuals, we're all better off for not reading
But, alas, the instant elimination of copyrights would have negligible effect
on the star system. While it would cut into the lifelong gravy train of stellar
scribes, it would have no effect on their biggest source of income: the contract
for their next book (or script, play or even magazine article or short story).
That is where the money is.
"You're only as good as your last piece" - but you collect for that
on your next sale. Market decisions are made on anticipated sales. Sounds like
straight von Mises, right? (Another great writer who profited little from copyrighting
- but others are currently raking it in from Ludwig's privileged corpse - er,
The point of all this vulgar praxeology is not just to clear the way for the
moral question. The market (praise be) is telling us something. After all, both
market human action and morality arise from the same Natural Law.
In fact, let us clear out some more deadwood and red herrings before we face
the Great Moral Issue. First, if you abolish copyrights, would great authors
starve? Nope. In fact, the market might open a trifle for new blood. Would writers
write if they did not get paid? Who says they wouldn't? There is no link between
payment for writing and copyrights. Royalties roll in (or, much more often, trickle
in) long after the next work is sold and the one after is in progress.
Is not a producer entitled to the fruit of his labour? Sure, that's why writers
are paid. But if I make a copy of a shoe or a table or a fireplace log (with
my little copied axe) does the cobbler or wood worker or woodchopper collect
A. J. Galambos, bless his anarchoheart, attempted to take copyrights and patents
to their logical conclusion. Every time we break a stick, Ug The First should
collect a royalty. Ideas are property, he says; madness and chaos result.
Property is a concept extracted from nature by conceptual man to designate
the distribution of scarce goods - the entire material world - among avaricious,
competing egos. If I have an idea, you may have the same idea and it takes nothing
from me. Use yours as you will and I do the same.
Ideas, to use the 'au courant' language of computer programmers, are the programmes;
property is the data. Or, to use another current cliche, ideas are the maps and
cartography, and property is the territory. The difference compares well to the
differences between sex and talking about sex.
Would not ideas be repressed without the incentive (provided by copyrights)?
'Au contraire' the biggest problem with ideas is the delivery system. How do
we get them to those marketeers who can distribute them? (Ed. note: most readers
probably know the answer to this in 1996, this was written in1986)
My ideas are pieces of what passes for my soul (or, if you prefer, ego). Therefore,
every time someone adopts one of them, a little piece of me has infected them.
And for this I get paid, too! On top of all that, I should be paid and paid and
paid as they get staler and staler?
If copyrights are such a drag, why and how did they evolve? Not by the market
process. Like all privileges (emphasis added), they were grants of the king.
The idea did not - could not - arise until Gutenberg's printing press and it
coincided with the rise of royal divinity, and soon after, the onslaught of mercantilism.
So who benefits from this privilege? There is an economic impact I failed to
mention earlier. It is, in Bastiat's phrasing, the unseen. Copyright is a Big
publisher's method, under cover of protecting artists, of restraint of trade.
Yes, we're talking monopoly.
For when the Corporation tosses its bone to the struggling writer, and an occasional
steak to the pampered tenth of a percent, it receives an enforceable legal monopoly
on the editing, typesetting, printing, packaging, marketing (including advertising)
and sometimes even local distribution of that book or magazine. (In magazines,
it also has an exclusivity in layout vs other articles and illustrations and
published advertisements.) How's that for vertical integration and restraint
And so the system perpetuates, give or take a few counter-economic outlaws
and some enterprising Taiwanese with good smuggling connections.
Because copyrights permeate all mass media, Copyright is the Rip-off That Dare
Not Mention Its Name. The rot corrupting our entire communications market is
so entrenched it will survive nothing short of abolition of the State and its
enforcement of Copyright. Because the losers, small-name writers and all readers,
lose so little each, we are content - it seems - to be nickel-and-dime plundered.
Why worry about mosquito bites when we have the vampire gouges of income taxes
and automobile tariffs?
Now for the central moral question: what first woke me up to the problem that
was the innocent viewer scenario. Consider the following careful contractual
Author Big and Publisher Bigger have contracts not to reveal a word of what's
in some publication. Everyone on the staff, every person in the step of production
is contracted not to reveal a word. All the distributors are covered and the
advertising quotes only a minimal amount of words. Every reader is like Death
Records in Phantom of the Paradise, under contract, too; that is every reader
who purchases the book or 'zine and thus interacts with someone who is under
contract - interacts in a voluntary trade and voluntary agreement.
No, I am not worried about the simultaneous creator; although an obvious victim,
he or she is rare, given sufficient complexity in the work under questions. (However,
some recent copyright decisions and the fact that the Dolly Parton case even
got as far as a serious trial - means the corruption is spreading.)
One day you and I walk into a room - invited but without even mention of a
contract - and the publication lies open on a table. Photons leap from the pages
to our eyes and our hapless brain processes the information. Utterly innocent,
having committed no volitional act, we are copyright violators. We have unintentionally
embarked on a life of piracy.
And God or the Market help us if we now try to act on the ideas now in our
mind or to reveal this unintended guilty secret in any way. The State shall strike
us - save only if Author Big and Publisher Bigger decide in their tyrannous mercy
that we are too small and not worth the trouble.
For if we use the ideas or repeat or reprint them, even as part of our own
larger creation - bang! There goes the monopoly. And so each and every innocent
viewer must be suppressed. By the Market? Hardly. The entire contractual agreement
falls like a house of cards when the innocent gets his or her forbidden view.
No, copyright has nothing to do with creativity, incentive, just desserts, fruits
of labour or any other element of the moral, free market.
It is a creature of the State, the Vampire's little bat. And, as far as I'm
concerned, the word should be copywrong.